Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Long-Suffering Completist: Neil Young, Part 1

I have reached a sort of milestone on the long, lost highway to music-related insanity: I am exactly one title away from owning Every Neil Young Album. This may sound noble, folks, but my malady, the dread completism, comes at a price. There are some artists whose work I so admire that I cannot bring myself not to buy each and every song they release, and Neil Young is one of them. For a few immortal artists, completism is a no-brainer—every Beatles record is great and worth owning, and even their lesser tracks accrue aesthetic value simply by virtue of the company they keep (example: try listening to Abbey Road without "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"; you'll miss it. Or at least you'll miss the familiar sensation of being vaguely irritated for three minutes and twenty-eight seconds).

But Neil Young is known for having somewhat more 'eccentric' quality control than artists such as the Beatles, and while his highs are indeed high, for every After The Gold Rush, there's a Landing On Water or Are You Passionate? lurking in the nooks and crannies of the discography. So, picture your humble narrator lurking in Amoeba, staring at a used (but M-, for good reason) copy of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's dire American Dream from 1988, thinking, "Hey you. You have a few Neil songs unavailable elsewhere. I bet they suck. Alas, I must buy you anyway." The $3.99 price tag doesn't sting anywhere near as much as being seen carrying around a copy of this abomination, and facing the hip Amoeba record store clerk with a tidy stack of completist embarrassments feels more like an arraignment than a simple exchange of money for product.

My one missing title is Everybody's Rockin', Neil's so-called 'rockabilly' album from 1983, allegedly made to annoy his record company, which had asked him to make a rock'n'roll record after his odd foray into Devo-inspired vocoder robot funk on 1982's Trans. I am not looking forward to buying this record, since it has a lousy reputation (for which reason I've held it off for last). But if there's one thing I've learned from Neil's recorded output, it's that there's a certain continuity amid all the chaos. In fact, after hearing his very first recordings from the early 60s on Archives, I am beginning to think that Neil may have had more than company-politics and revenge on his mind for this record, and that the cynical interpretation is just that: cynical. There are many mediocre Neil Young Albums, but even these have some moments on them that are hard to deny. Neil may need a better editor, but the journey through the far corners of his discography holds its share of gems. To prove my point are two tracks, one rather hard-to-find, another hiding in plain sight.

"Interstate" was available only on the vinyl version of 1996's lukewarm Broken Arrow. I kinda like the album now, but at the time I criticized it for the three long, meandering jams in a row that kick off the album and bog it down for 25 minutes (for a while I nicknamed it Everybody Knows This Goes Nowhere). This spooky, low-key acoustic number is the sort of track which would fit easily on Zuma or side two of On The Beach:

Those who thought the sloppy r'n'b grooves of 2002's Are You Passionate? earned the response "No" to the title question should keep in mind that Neil was not exactly a stranger to rhythm and blues or soul. 1988's This Note's For You had him playing with a full horn section, and he even had a small hit with the title track. But Neil had been in an r'n'b combo in the 60s, The Mynah Birds, who had a contract with Motown (!). They only released one single, and now this long-forgotten band is mentioned more for the fact that one of Neil's fellow Mynah Birds was none other than Rick James. Yes, that one (!!). But Neil's failed experiments are never complete disasters. Here is "Coupe de Ville", in my opinion one of the oddest songs in his catalogue, a jazzy blues with sad horns in the background. It's uncharacteristic, but it still sounds like Neil, and it's great. The completist, toiling alone, usually late at night, occasionally finds a diamond in the dirt.

"Coupe de Ville":

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